June 4th, 2013
11:32 AM ET
Perusing through your parents’ music collection is part of growing up.
For my generation, it was going through various stereo systems, containers and shelves for albums, cassettes, 45s and 8-tracks to learn what our forefathers (and mothers) listened to when they were our age, as well as what they enjoy today.
Many Saturdays ago, I was looking through my folks’ circa-1960s “entertainment center” (a stereo system that covered the entire wall of a dining room, complete with record/8-track player on one side and actual albums and tapes on the other) when I came upon this peculiar LP. It said “All in the Family,” and featured the cast of the iconic CBS sitcom on the cover. The track listings only added to the mystery – “Sweetie Pie Roger,” “Shove Yours” and “VD Day” didn’t sound like songs Casey Kasem would play on “American Top 40.”
Curious, I placed the album in the player and turned it on. What I got was a nostalgic listen at a groundbreaking TV show and, in the wake of Jean Stapleton’s passing, a lesson on the art of comedy.
The album, released in 1971, was essentially a collection of 12 “All in the Family” bits from the show’s first season, as well as the opening and closing themes.
Those 12 bits explained the show to those unfamiliar with it – bigoted Archie Bunker struggling with the changing world around him; Archie's verbal clashing with liberal son-in-law “Meathead” Mike on pretty much everything; and daughter Gloria trying to find common ground between the quarrelsome men.
Stapleton’s Edith Bunker was the rock of the family – kind, a bit naïve, but smarter than you think – who could keep Archie at bay with one of her patented “dingbat” moments. It was a show that made you laugh while breaking numerous taboos. From openly discussing sexuality and racism to the sound of a flushing toilet, “All in the Family” was there.
Stapleton shines in several of the tracks, showing why she won three Emmy awards for the role that made her a TV legend. “VD Day” is typical “Archie vs. the young generation” kerfuffle, with Archie expressing disdain that “Meathead” and Gloria are involved in a letter campaign promoting a free clinic that, among other services, offers free treatment for venereal disease. Archie asks Edith if she knows what VD is, and she responds with a “wait, don’t tell me” that has the audience in an uproar.
As Archie, “Meathead” and Gloria continue their war of words, Edith pops in occasionally, noting that VD “is someone’s initials” and it had “something to do with flags and parades.” Finally, Edith has her “a-ha moment” – Archie and the kids must be talking about “VD Day.” The track ends with the audience roaring approval at the line.
Comedy is all about timing and hitting your mark, and Stapleton’s ability to subdue a tense moment with huge laughs is on fine display.
“Jury Duty” is another track that featured Stapleton at her best. Edith is picked to be on a jury, leading to a dinner table argument on capital punishment. When “Meathead” asks Edith’s stance on the death penalty, she states that she’s for it, “as long as it’s not too severe.”
We later learn that Edith is the lone juror blocking a unanimous guilty verdict (Archie refers to her as a “lone dingbat”). We go straight to the jury room, where the other jurors are pressuring Edith to change her vote to “guilty.” While Edith delivers a meek impression of Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” in questioning the guilt of the suspect, we also discover another side to the Queens housewife.
Edith explains to the other jurors that this decision may be the biggest one she’s ever made, as most of her day-to-day decisions involve what to serve for dinner or whether she should starch Archie’s shirts. Because she is shouldering such a great responsibility, Edith is taking the verdict seriously, and she refuses to be swayed by the other jurors. Her Archie-like stubbornness worked, as someone else would later confess to the crime.
Again, Stapleton shows great timing in diffusing a heated debate at the dinner table. She also demonstrates that Edith is not just a meek comic foil, but someone who, when given the chance, can deliver an eloquent argument. Stapleton was determined not to make Edith one-dimensional, and “Jury Duty” was a perfect example of the depth she brought to the character.
I played that album many times during my teen years, and I could find a little bit of my own family in the Bunkers. As show creator Norman Lear wrote in the liner notes, “In this album, perhaps there is a touch of your father. Or neighbor. Or me. Or you. Whatever, whoever – enjoy!”
I definitely enjoyed that album, and I thank Jean Stapleton and the rest of the cast for making such an iconic series.
About this blog
Our daily cheat-sheet for breaking celebrity news, Hollywood buzz and your pop-culture obsessions.